How to Beat Standard's Top Three Decks
Following Pro Tour Amonkhet, it looks like we essentially have a three-deck metagame consisting of Zombies, Marvel and Vehicles. Today we're going to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of each of these strategies, especially focusing on how to beat these top three archetypes.
Zombies comes in two forms: with and without a white splash.
Team Mutiny's Mono-Black Zombies
Team Lingering Souls' White-Black Zombies
Zombies can go aggro if it needs to and it tends to end up going big, but the real strength of the deck is its ability to go wide. It accomplishes this primarily via two cards: Cryptbreaker and Diregraf Colossus. Cryptbreaker draws cards at an increasing rate – a card for each trio of zombies you make – while Diregraf Colossus doubles up on your Zombie production (or triples up once you hit your second copy).
It's hard to overcome this engine with point removal, because even if you target these two primary cogs in the engine it is still a resilient tribal deck consisting of lords and creatures that come back from the dead. It also has a high number of removal spells, four of which come with a horde of Zombies attached ( Dark Salvation).
The removal spells make it difficult to fight the deck by racing it, though if you can somehow be faster than them, you stand a legitimate chance of getting in early damage while they set up. They also have no way of stopping a flying creature outside of their removal spells, so finishing the game with a flyer is a legitimate strategy against Zombies. And if you don't have flyers, you can also make your own via Gryff's Boon!
Another legitimate strategy against Zombies is to wipe their board, though it's only a temporarily solution and you still have to finish the game before they rebuild. Cards like Radiant Flames, Sweltering Suns, Yahenni's Expertise, and Fumigate are the most effective options. Some people are trying to play Flaying Tendrils, but I think that is way too risky since it only reliably stops half their creatures as long as they have one of their eight lords. And it's not even an out to top deck later in the game once they get to five mana for Liliana's Mastery. Therefore, I would go with Yahenni's Expertise over Flaying Tendrils if I'm in black and one of the other options mentioned if I'm in red or white.
One of the single best cards against Zombies is Archangel Avacyn since it is a large flyer that can fly over and end the game quickly and it is also a three-damage board wipe, which is exactly the right amount of damage to deal. As long as you play it during your turn or on the opponent's end step (as opposed to during the opponent's combat step) you dodge Dark Salvation. Avacyn also naturally dodges Fatal Push, even if revolt is active, so their only recourse is Grasp of Darkness (or sometimes Anguished Unmaking). Most lists only run 2-3 total answers to Avacyn in their main deck and only have Transgress the Mind as a sideboard answer.
One way to end the game quickly after wiping the board is to activate Aetherworks Marvel finding Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. If your deck is capable of pulling off this combo, it's likely your Plan A no matter what the matchup, but it's worth mentioning that Zombies tend to take a while to reload and have no way of interacting with a resolved Aetherworks Marvel outside of Anguished Unmaking. The mono-black version only has Transgress the Mind and that is only after game one. So as long as a sweeper or two is involved, you'll likely have multiple chances to hit Ulamog off your Aetherworks Marvel.
Speaking of Aetherworks Marvel…
Aetherworks Marvel comes in two forms: Temur and Sultai:
Team Musashi's Temur Aetherworks
Team Genesis's Temur Aetherworks
Team Pantheon's Sultai Aetherworks
The primary plan of any variant of Aetherworks Marvel is to accumulate six energy and activate Aetherworks Marvel to find Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. Ideally this happens on the fourth turn and you blow up two of the opponent's lands and the opponent promptly dies. The rest of the deck is designed to either set up this plan or to stop the opponent from winning before we set up our plan since Ulamog is basically the most potent endgame in the format.
The Temur version played by Yuuya Watanabe to a second-place finish will likely be the default version you'll face, though the Genesis version played to a Top 4 finish by Martin Muller may also be high on people's radar. The primary unique feature of the Japanese list is the inclusion of main deck countermagic. It runs three copies of Censor and one copy of Negate in the main and it boards into a Dispel and three more Negates. This is improves the mirror match and also the control matchup. It also runs three main deck copies of Dissenter's Deliverance which improves the mirror match and also the Vehicles matchup.
The Genesis version eschews the main deck cyclers in favor of Chandra, Flamecaller. This makes the deck less capable of finding Aetherworks Marvel since you lack the cyclers to dig toward it, but the tradeoff is that it makes each activation of the Marvel that much more powerful since you aren't just hitting Rogue Refiner or Whirler Virtuoso when you miss on Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. Chandra plays an important dual purpose: she wipes the board against aggressive strategies, including Zombies, or she can refill your hand with her zero ability if your hand is filled with excess lands, Ulamogs, and other cards that aren't helpful to the situation. She is also a formidable backup win condition as she makes a pair of 3/1 haste Elemental Tokens each turn. This ability is particularly relevant in post-board games when the opponent casts Lost Legacy removing Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger from your deck or Dispossess naming Aetherworks Marvel.
The Sultai version played to a strong finish by Pantheon's Reid Duke and William Jensen is similar to the Genesis version in that it has a more robust backup plan for when it doesn't Marvel into Ulamog, but instead of using Chandra, Flamecaller it uses Lilana, Death's Majesty. Liliana does a few important things for the deck, the most notable of which is to Reanimate Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger after putting Ulamog into the graveyard via Vessel of Nascency. She can also bring back Rogue Refiner if energy is needed, or Ishkanah, Grafwidow if time is needed. Being able to “cheat” Ulamog onto the battlefield a second way helps to work toward the deck's primary game plan of “attack with Ulamog,” though unfortunately you don't get to exile two permanents when you Reanimate the Eldrazi since it's a cast trigger rather than an enters-the-battlefield trigger.
The best and most straightforward way to beat any of the Aetherworks Marvel strategies is via countermagic. The best is Ceremonious Rejection since it counters Aetherworks Marvel every time for just a single mana. The second best is Negate since it will do the same for two mana and will also be able to counter the backup plan, whether that is Chandra, Flamecaller or Liliana, Death's Majesty. These counters are a little less good against the Sultai version since that deck can play better without Marvel by just doing an impression of a Sultai Delirium deck. The Temur versions lean heavily on Glimmer of Genius, which can also be stopped by Negate. Any of the three-mana counters are also quite effective, including Disallow and Void Shatter as well as Summary Dismissal if you really feel like a baller. The deck is so much worse without Marvel, so targeting the Marvel is generally the best strategy.
Aside from countermagic, the next best plan is hand disruption. My favorite here is Transgress the Mind since it takes Aetherworks Marvel or Glimmer of Genius and is also generally good against all the control decks. Aetherworks Marvel is basically the single reason by Transgress the Mind is better than Lay Bare the Heart right now, but it's such a prevalent and important threat to deal with that it's worth playing Transgress over Lay Bare. I am not big on Lost Legacy or Dispossess since they are excessively narrow and have a tendency to miss or to not be enough. For instance, you can spend your turn removing all their Ulamogs and then they Marvel into other threats or you spend your turn removal their Marvels and they use all their energy making thopters to beat you down with. I would definitely play the fourth copy of Transgress the Mind before playing any copies of these Cranial Extraction type cards, though I'd likely stop at just four copies of Transgress rather than playing one of these at all.
Another reasonably effective answer to Marvel is Manglehorn. If you play Manglehorn first, then the Aetherworks Marvel enters tapped and thus the opponent has to wait an extra turn before activating it. This gives you time to kill them or to find another answer to the artifact (perhaps another Manglehorn?). Or after the Marvel is already on the board, the Manglehorn can come down and kill it. This obviously means they already got to activate the Marvel once though, which makes a reactive Manglehorn not an ideal answer, but they will miss a fairly high amount of the time and so Manglehorn will still be an effective card against them at least half the time. It is also good against Mardu Vehicles and is also serviceable against Metallic Mimic out of Zombies, especially if they board into Aethersphere Harvester and/or Scrapheap Scrounger.
Speaking of Vehicles…
Vehicles comes in three forms:
Ryan Cubit's Bushwhacker Vehicles
Kelvin Chew's 4c Vehicles
Team Pantheon's Mardu Vehicles
The Pantheon version played by Owen Turtenwald is the more traditional variant of the archetype, going straight Mardu and just playing all the most powerful cards. The newest additions from Amonkhet include: Glorybringer, Magma Spray, and Canyon Slough in the main deck and Cut // Ribbons and more Magma Sprays in the sideboard. Some versions run 1-2 copies of Cut // Ribbons main, but for the most part Glorybringer is the only real game changer for this archetype to come out of Amonkhet.
Kelvin Chew went with Walking Ballista over Glorybringer and also included Aethersphere Harvester in the deck, though the main difference between Chew's version and the other Vehicles decks is the inclusion of blue for sideboard countermagic. He runs three copies of Metallic Rebuke and two copies of Negate. These counters give the deck a much bigger edge against Marvel strategies as well as control strategies such as Blue-Red Control, which may be on the rise in this metagame.
Ryan Cubit was the top-performing Vehicles pilot at the Pro Tour and his list is quite innovative, including Inventor's Apprentice and Reckless Bushwhacker! This more hyper-aggressive build gives the opponent less time to set up and the Bushwhacker allows the deck to explode into a large attack even from an empty board. This makes the deck even more resilient to sweepers than it already was (thanks to the Scrapheap Scroungers, Heart of Kirans, and Gideons). The tradeoff is that the midgame topdecks are a bit less powerful, offering up Kird Apes and Goblin Guides instead of Glorybringers or Walking Ballistas.
One of the most effective strategies used against Vehicles at Pro Tour Aether Revolt was to board in Release the Gremlins. Over the course of the following few months the counter-strategy was to board out all the vehicles and strand the opponent with a bunch of ineffective artifact kill spells in post-board games. Looking at people's sideboards now, we see only a pair of Manglehorns, a singleton copy of Release the Gremlins, or in the case of Mono-Black Zombies, no answers to artifacts at all in the 75. Given this current trend of largely ignoring artifacts, I suspect that the default strategy will be to leave in Heart of Kiran and company until the opponent shows they have artifact kill. If this is the case, then that makes artifact kill good against them, especially Release the Gremlins and By Force but also Manglehorn and even potentially Ceremonial Rejection.
Other effective strategies against Vehicles include going underneath since most of the threats in the deck don't block well, or out-grinding them in an attrition fight since most of their cards, aside from Scrapheap Scrounger, match up poorly against one-for-one removal. So if you have something like Magma Spray to handle Scrapheap Scrounger, then Glimmer of Genius and Torrential Gearhulk can be a way to pull ahead and take over in the long game. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is then really the only card you have to worry about and there are plenty of viable answers to Gideon, including Glorybringer or simply leaving up countermagic such as Negate. If you leave up removal to kill the token, Wandering Fumarole can also be an effective answer to Gideon.
The metagame coming out of Pro Tour Amonkhet was not what it was going in. Black-Green Constrictor decks are scarcely on anyone's radar now, as are control decks, Prized Amalgam decks, or human tribal strategies. This doesn't mean these strategies aren't viable. Rather, it simply means they are not going to be prepared for, at least not directly. White aggro strategies will experience a lot of splash hate from people gearing up for the Zombies matchup and control decks will likely face an inordinate amount of Transgress the Minds and Negates because of the Aetherworks Marvel decks. If you can somehow find a way to dodge the splash hate for these top strategies and/or fit enough of these hate cards into your strategy, you will be well-equipped for this weekend's metagame. All three of the top strategies are very beatable and have noticeably exploitable weaknesses. Either join one of them and max out on the hate cards recommended or play your own rogue strategy that incorporates a sufficient amount of these counter-strategy elements.
Also be sure to build your sideboard in such a way that you can transform into a build that lacks dead cards and is filled with powerful cards for the specific matchups. For instance, you want a bunch of cheap removal and sweepers against Zombies, but these cards are generally bad against Marvel. In contrast, you want a bunch of counters and hand disruption against Marvel, but these cards are bad against Zombies. So you want to be able to swap your removal for counters and/or hand disruption or vice versa depending on your main deck configuration and the matchup. The idea is to present a configuration of your deck for post-sideboard games that is well-suited for whatever matchup you are facing. This means having a sideboard plan that involves having enough cards to bring in for all your worst cards in each matchup (e.g. enough counters and discard to replace all your Magma Sprays and Fatal Pushes against Marvel).
Avoid leaving yourself vulnerable to splash hate and have a plan that exploits the weaknesses of the top strategies, all according to the specifics outlined in this article. Regardless of what deck you're on, that's how you beat the top three decks in Standard right now!